Could faculty buyouts at MU and UMKC gut some departments? Some professors worry

The University of Missouri System is proposing buyouts for senior faculty.
The University of Missouri System is proposing buyouts for senior faculty. University of Missouri

The University of Missouri System has offered buyouts to its most senior professors on all four campuses, prompting concerns from faculty leaders that some departments might end up gutted.

Eligible faculty in Kansas City, Columbia, Rolla and St. Louis were given notice a week ago of “a one-time opportunity to receive a lump sum payout” of 1.5 times their annual salary, up to $200,000, effective Sept. 1, 2019.

The faculty must be full time and tenured, older than 62 and have worked in the system at least five years.

At Mizzou that’s 224 faculty members, 112 at University of Missouri-Kansas City, 55 at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla and 72 at University of Missouri in St. Louis. The total, 466, also includes employees working at the system level.

In addition to saving money, the program will allow for more raises and “is a way that we can thank senior faculty for their contributions to the university,” said Christian Basi, university system spokesman.

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At the University Missouri-Kansas City, 112 faculty members received buyout offers. File photo

Longtime UMKC history professor Gary Ebersole, a former faculty senate president, said similar programs in the past didn’t always go well.

“This is the third such buyout in the 23 years I have been at UMKC,” Ebersole said. “In the last go-round, the entire math and statistics department at UMKC took early retirement, and a few months before the new school year, the university had to scramble to offer math and statistics courses.”

UMKC officials said they searched as far back as 1984 but could not confirm a time when the math and statistics department was without any full-time faculty. They said buyout offers are rare because they are somewhat disruptive. But universities will have time to fill workload needs.

Ebersole said he remembers that “the university ended up having to hire many of the same faculty back, as well as hiring other people still on the market late in the academic year. … The problem with this sort of buyout program is that it cannot be successfully targeted.”

University officials said they are not looking for any particular number of faculty to take the offer, and there is no limit on the number who could accept it.

Basi said the offer is not intended to be an early retirement plan, but he said new faculty may eventually be hired. Those decisions will “depend on the target goals of the college or department,” he said.

In 2014, a similar buyout was offered by then-Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to University of Missouri faculty. Loftin said at the time the offer would “allow the university the opportunity to manage a challenging financial environment by providing flexibility for funding new positions and granting appropriate salary increases.”

MU law professor Ben Trachtenberg, who is a member of the faculty council, remembers that the last buyout “worked better in some departments than in others.” Some departments, he said, “got hit hard.” Trachtenberg said he recalled talking to faculty from some small departments in which buyout offers were accepted, but the departments could not hire replacements, “and that was hard,” he said.

But Trachtenberg said, “there is no reason that something like this can’t work. Ultimately it comes down to how the administration deals with the decisions that people make.”

And since the offer is voluntary, he said, faculty are not worried that the oldest and more experienced faculty are being forced out. In fact, he said, “for some faculty who were already considering retirement but might have been concerned about the money, this is a nice opportunity.”

It also presents an opportunity for the campuses to add diversity to their faculty, said Professor Clark Peters, who chairs the MU faculty council. Also, Peters said, “while we probably lose some wonderfully experienced faculty, I think there is a sense that bringing in young energy and young scholars is a good thing. They can bring a lot to the table.”

Trachtenberg said faculty are waiting for more details, such as whether departments that lose significant numbers in the buyout will be given money to fill vacancies.

“It matters from which budget — the college, the department, the university or the system — the lump sum payment comes from,” Trachtenberg said. “For example if someone gets a $200,000 buyout and the department has to pay that, it makes it hard to hire someone else. But if the system pays, then the department has money. They don’t have to pay that salary.”

Faculty members, Trachtenberg said, “are not so much pro or con on this, they are just saying they’re anxious to see how the deals get made.”

Basi said that if needed, the university could rehire faculty members who took the buyout, and pay them to work part time.

This latest cost-saving move follows the direction set by System President Mun Choi since he arrived in 2016.

Under Choi, all four campuses have been cutting costs in some areas while plugging money into other areas, such as launching new student scholarship programs.

Last year 307 positions were eliminated, including some faculty and administrative jobs. At the same time new faculty were hired.

This latest system offer is to be paid out no later than Nov. 1, 2019.

Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.